24 April 2007 | dougdoepke
The Tombstone Doesn't Tell the Story
Hipsters have a lot of fun turning Dragnet's Joe Friday into a kind of 50's style robocop. Too bad that the robotic side has come to define this signature series. Because in reality, the show was much more than what it's become-- the butt of comics from Dan Ackroyd to Jay Leno. Dragnet was much more because the show actually defined police work for millions of viewers during those early TV years. Friday was in audience eyes (mine too) the ultimate police professional. And if he seemed a tad stiff without any discernible personal life, that was OK since the law should be applied in a formal and impersonal manner. And if that also coincided with the civil liberties trashing Joe Mc Carthy, that's OK too because everybody liked Ike and Ike was president, not Joe Mc Carthy. In short, Dragnet was more than a TV event-- it was a cultural reflection with a long-lasting impact on how Americans pictured law enforcement.
In fact, it's not a stretch to claim that Dragnet redefined the popular police image from what it had been. Consider, for example, how cops were portrayed in the 1930's. They were either three fumbling steps behind Bogart and Cagney, or played buffoonish comic relief for the likes of Boston Blackie and Charlie Chan. Still, depression era audiences didn't mind, since cops were generally viewed as adversaries who enforced bank foreclosures or busted up union rallies. A decade later, police largely disappeared from the screen as America went to war, but even after the boys came home, cops only existed around the edges. However, there was a development at 20th Century Fox that foreshadowed the rise of a Dragnet. And that was the use of a documentary style of film-making in movies such as Boomerang, and Naked City, to name two. Such films emphasized hum-drum real-life activities across a spectrum that often included police work. And audiences responded, since they were not used to seeing some of their own reality coming from Hollywood's well-honed Dream Factory.
Jack Webb's genius lay in seeing how this documentary approach could be applied to radio and then TV. Audiences really had little idea of how modern police departments worked, and no doubt many still struggled with the comic versions of the 30's. However, Webb made a fateful decision at that point-- he got the collaboration of the Los Angeles Police Department to give the show a stamp of authenticity. On one hand, the endorsement said to viewers-- this show is special since these are real cases and this is the way we really operate. On the other hand, it put strict limits on Sgt. Friday and how cops could be portrayed. Because now he was no longer just a working cop, he was a stand-in for the whole LAPD, and eventually for departments from Miami to Seattle. With that kind of responsibility, what show could afford to take chances. Thus was born Friday the law-and-order robot, while actor-Webb locked into a role he couldn't change even if he wanted to.
But you've got to hand it to the guy. In the spirit of real world appearance, he did his darndest to de-glamorize police work. There were no busty babes, no high-speed chases, no heroic shoot-outs, nor even bloody fist-fights. Instead, Friday plodded around town in the same seedy sport coat interviewing John or Joan Q. Public, making an occasional low-key arrest. And if the public seemed at times not too bright or not very cooperative or sometimes even criminal, he kept his cool. Sure, he could get riled and spit out a snarl, plus that annoying habit of topping comments he didn't like. But he was never flashy nor brutal nor egotistical. Okay, so maybe, despite all the official hype, Friday was still a pretty long way from a real cop. Nonetheless, he and his cast of ordinary-looking people did what the series set out to do. They were close enough to the real thing to make the audience believe.
The first few years were, I think, the best. After that, the show became too concerned with lightening the mood, and we got a lot of folksy humor from partner Frank Smith to make up for Friday's lack of a personal life. But those first few years brought forth some of the most memorable mini-dramas of the time-- a teenager accidentally shoots a friend, a cruel old man murders his wife, an adulterous wife abandons her wedlock baby. Many of the cases even concerned minor crimes far from the usual. And oddly, it was director Webb's much derided Spartan style that turned many of these cases into the powerful human-interest stories they were. The tight close-ups, the terse, understated dialogue, the spare sets, all worked to concentrate attention on the human side of the story. At such points, Friday often faded into the background, becoming, as it were, little more than a mute bystander-- an ironical outcome for a series that specialized in police procedure.
Still, the series was wedded to its time. Soon, the Eisenhower years turned into Vietnam, Jim Crow turned into Civil Rights marches, and social conformity morphed into a lively counter-culture. And many urban issues the show had avoided (police brutality) or underplayed (corruption) suddenly burst into headline stories. More importantly, cops were no longer viewed as impartial defenders of the law, but as agents of a hypocritical, repressive "establishment". The times had changed, yet Friday's 50's brand of unquestioning assumptions about authority hadn't. Thus, the 60's revival of Dragnet was doomed from the start. But that shouldn't take away from the show's genuine accomplishment of de-glamorizing real police work. Of course, the hipsters are probably right-- Friday did look a lot like a 50's robocop. But, they're also wrong. Because, at its best during those early years, the series was verifiably human, or as some might hold, all-too-human. Too bad the hipsters can't work that into their act.